Yes Please

I have a very low tolerance for complaining. I used to be a big complainer, and still complain about things occasionally because I’m a human. But I reached a point a few years ago when the complaints of people who, generally speaking, Have It Good, had reached a completely intolerable level. I don’t claim to know everyone well, nor do I think people are without problems, but I feel like I’ve been exposed to enough complaints from people who should learn to deal that I’m extremely sensitive to them now. I also think complaining is an art that should be honed carefully, and a luxury that should be indulged very lightly in friendships. (I realize the irony here; I’m complaining about complaining. Stay with me.)

My good friend warned me in advance that Amy Poehler does a lot of complaining in her book about how difficult it is to write a book. I’m very grateful for this warning, because it did prepare me, but I still felt bombarded by it. I love Amy Poehler, but after reading the first umpteen pages of Yes Please, I don’t like her as much as I used to. She spends so much time filling space complaining, and then apologizes for how ungrateful it sounds, and then continues to complain anyway, that I almost stopped reading. I did continue, and I’m glad I did, because she doles out really solid advice, but as a twentysomething female who looks up to Amy and her comedy cohorts, it’s really fucking disheartening to see someone this great semi-squander a great opportunity. She could have said no to the book (which she mentions). She could have waited on the book. Worse, she doesn’t even seem that proud of what she made, because she knows she could have done better. It’s a bizarre example to set, especially because she seems like the kind of person that’s very honest with herself. The honesty happened too late in the book process. By the time she realized she couldn’t do it, she was in the hole. I admire the honesty, but I would have strongly preferred hearing her honesty post-book in interviews. Instead, we hear it in the book AND in the interviews.

With the exception of the massively sour lead-in, I really related to Amy here. She is honest, and doesn’t give a flying fuck about admitting pain or imperfection. She has found a way of deflecting it, of not letting it downgrade her in her own eyes or anyone else’s, and that’s an incredibly rare, admirable trait. Of her childhood, she spoke frankly of her lack of struggle: “When you have a comfortable and loving middle-class family, sometimes you yearn for a dance on the edge” (p. 123). She had nothing to complain about then, so she manufactured drama and excitement. She wanted the attention. I never experienced this as a kid — I stayed pretty quiet — but as I got older I did feel the pressure from the cushion all around me. Amy goes on to say, “I would read terrible stories to punish myself for my lucky life” (p. 130), which explains perfectly why most of us are fascinated with the dysfunctional, especially when we don’t have it.

Her perspective as she’s gotten older is so spot-on, too: “I think we should stop asking people in their twenties what they ‘want to do’ and start asking them what they don’t want to do” (p. 12). Yes, and how! The louder we say statements like this, the less pressure we’ll put on ourselves to conform to the lingering archaic aspects of society. (Whoa, where’d that soap box come from? I’ll step off.) We expect so much of each other at certain stages in life, and we fail to account for failure. Failure or idleness isn’t a bad thing. It’s just part of it. I also liked, “Getting older also helps you develop X-ray vision. The strange thing is that the moment people start looking at you less is when you start being able to see through people more” (p. 100). She’s letting us in on the secrets here; just because you’re not the center of attention, doesn’t mean your radar isn’t on.

Another favorite passage was “Reasons We Cry in an Airplane,” particularly these reasons (p. 133):
3. We feel lonely, which is different than being alone.
4. We are missing someone or have just left someone.
6. We feel like time is suspended and therefore we can feel real emotion without consequence.

It’s funny, but more than that, it’s true. Airplanes are our glass cases of emotion, dammit.

I wanted to hear more about her Upright Citizens Brigade days, but the best tidbit she gave was “Matt [Besser] was the first of many men I’ve been attracted to because they know how to play women” (p. 111). She really glossed over this part of her life, maybe because it has already been documented elsewhere, or maybe because it seemed like too daunting a task. Either way, I’m massively disappointed. This is the part of her life that shaped her comedy, that drew her to audiences, that established her as a lady in a world of men. I’d already heard the stories about cleaning toilets and handing out flyers, but I wanted more. She shared a lot from her SNL days, and a good deal from her Parks and Rec days, but UCB is where it all started. Bummer.

I’ll end with a few other pieces of her advice, because she’s really good at giving it. And I’ll listen to it. And I’ll watch her comedy, because she’s brilliant and effervescent. But… I’ll still be conflicted for awhile. Sorry, Amy.

p. 71 // “Your brain is not your friend when you need to apologize.”
p. 225 // “Remember, your career is a bad boyfriend. It likes you when you don’t depend on it. It will reward you every time you don’t act needy.”
p. 280 // “If you can surf your life rather than plant your feet, you will be happier.”

It’s Always Something

Any lady who likes comedy likes Gilda, right? I mean, anyone who likes comedy likes Gilda, but especially any lady. Because she wasn’t a lady. She was FUNNY. She had the best hair and the most grace and the least-existent vanity.

I picked up her book pretty ignorantly, not realizing that it was mostly about her battle with cancer. And as I read it, there were times when I didn’t want to finish it. I didn’t want to know what would happen, because I know what ultimately happened. The world lost a genius, one of the many we’ve lost, and it’s a downright rotten feeling to read about it from her own perspective, knowing that you ultimately know more than she did.

But it’s also incredibly enlightening to read it from her perspective. It’s obvious that she gained a lightness about her situation as it was nearing the end; in fact, it’s incredible that she was able to pour that lightness into writing an entire book, but that only speaks to her ferocity. At times, it even felt like she was writing it from beyond the grave, like she had come to such an incredible peace about the whole thing that she was able to step outside of herself and watch it happen to someone else.

It happened to her, though. She fought cancer and surgery and chemo and radiation and dieting and everything for years, and it always seems to happen to the wrong people. Not that it ever happens to the right person, but in her case, it feels like she was stolen from us. I mean, this is a woman who, in the midst of it all, tried meditation: “I had hear about mantras and all that, but all I could think of was I would have to take my contact lenses out to do that because I can’t keep my eyes closed that long with them in; they start to hurt” (p. 83). I love that.

As she battled ovarian cancer, and learned more about the biology of it, it was clear that part of her comedy mind was being replaced by her science mind. Not that she was less funny, but she became more… normal. Really. She learned as much as possible about her case, and of course, reacted to it in a very emotional way, but ultimately harnessed that emotional depth to do as much good as possible. She made people laugh when it was right, and stayed serious when it was right, even though doctors and nurses “wait, expecting me to be funny” (p. 63). And she let herself be stronger, realizing “that you can choose whatever way you want to visualize the battle going on inside your body” (p. 127).

It was tough to read the first-person narrative of one of my heroes’ demise, but ultimately, I feel closer to her. I’m not even sure I can say that, but I do. I feel like I know an infinitely small fraction of her experience, and that knowledge is a powerful thing. She demonstrates just how productive and alive you can be, even when you’re dying, and how much you can learn about yourself in the process. I just wish we all could have seen and heard more from her.

Here are two more favorites. What a delightful woman.

p. 59 // “… always inside me was an introspective poet who never was patient enough to write and wait for a response.”

p. 199 // “People whimpering and hovering over me made me feel like I was dying. People yelling at me made me feel alive.”

gilda

Seinlanguage

This book is short, so I’ll make this post short, too. Seinfeld is my first comedy idol, and he’ll always be the creator of the best show on television as far as I’m concerned, but it’s pretty bizarre to look back on his old material in its non-sitcom form. Between the standup and the written word, his stuff feels so incredibly dated. It’s still good stuff, of course, the kind of stuff that makes millions of dollars because of how good it is, but consuming it for the umpteenth time makes me truly understand why comedians retire material. He did call his most famous special “I’m Telling You for the Last Time,” after all. He wants us to associate new observations with him each time we see him, and that’s important. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a pretty darn spectacular way of doing that, I might add, considering some of the mediocre stuff that came inbetween it and The Sitcom.

I decided to read his little book, Seinlanguage, to see if there was some aspect of him that I had missed. To cover all my Seinfeld bases, as it were. As it turns out, I had covered them so much that most of this book wasn’t funny to me because I’d already heard the jokes. It’s disorienting to see them written out, too. In the book, he does make a deal with the reader, pleading them to supply the tone and do a little of the work, but really, Seinfeld’s jokes are meant to be told by Seinfeld. He is the master of tone. Not even his own writing supplies his tone as well as his voice does. Without his tone, his book reads like a bunch of really outdated comments by a somewhat witty character named something like “Complainer Dad.”

But the cool thing is, that book may have reached a lot of people who hadn’t seen his show yet, and it was just the tip of the iceberg. It gave him a different kind of exposure. Nowadays, comedians are doing this multimedia thing all the time. Mike Birbiglia took one act and morphed it into a book, a movie, and a standup tour. Scott Aukerman has his podcast and his TV show, and at one point had a weekly standup show in LA, too, all revolving around the same basic concept. The true nerds, like me, will consume everything and complain about overlap in content, but we’ll still consume it all anyway, because we know it’s quality. And if quality is reaching more people, that’s good for everyone. Cheap laughs should be banned and replaced with expensive, rich, priceless ones.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

I don’t know why I was so insistent on the fact that there was a colon in the title of this film. It makes way more sense without it. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a very true declarative sentence. Why muck it up with punctuation, my own brain?

What a fascinating little documentary. On the one hand, O’Brien is a complete toolbag. On the other hand, he let himself be portrayed as the toolbag he is, which means he can’t actually be that much of a toolbag. I’ve recently re-re-revived my long-standing fascination with him–and finally started to delve into episodes of The Simpsons, but that is another tale for another time, someday, maybe–and seeing what he was like outside of the NBC/TBS product that he’s become really informed and complicated my opinion of him. The underlying feeling I have for him is respect, of course, because he took his “unemployment” and turned it into something for other people to enjoy: a live show. And even though he’s a performer, he wasn’t necessarily much of a stage guy prior to hitting the road like this. He took a big risk, and it paid off for him in strides. That deserves respect. But let’s break down my complicated emotions, because this is my blog and I can do that.

It goes without saying that this man is a genius. He’s so fucking smart and quick and self-deprecating, it truly is astonishing that he wasn’t deemed worthy enough to host The Tonight Show for more than a paltry few months. He’s got this weird confidence, weird not in the sense that he doesn’t deserve it but weird that a guy who looks and moves and thinks and speaks like him is typically not dancing around onstage in a skintight Elvis costume or playing his guitar like a real axe. Guys like him don’t become guys like him, ordinarily. They stay pasty and greasy and work behind the scenes. Conan is an anomaly. He’s made himself into a symbol for the comedically talented but mostly ignored; his swoosh of hair and slick suits and beard prove that any Harvard nerd can find himself successful and appealing.

He’s also an attention whore. He’s constantly interrupting his writers, his fellow performers, Andy Richter (maybe even more of a genius than Conan, but I don’t want to get into it here), badgering them for ideas, placing him at the butt of his jokes and then kicking that butt really hard, questioning them for answers they don’t have, demanding that he not be demanded too much of. And yet he’s a nice guy, too. He trusts his fellow performers. He likes the people he works with, even though his joke-mocking of Jack MacBrayer backstage at the New York show was borderline not funny. He rarely apologizes, except to himself or to Sona, his beloved assistant. Their relationship seems like it should be complicated, because she’s a beautiful twentysomething and he is a world-famous fortysomething TV host, but maybe it’s not complicated, and I’ve seen too many movies. He truly listens to what she has to say, and values her opinion, and asks for her advice, even though he’s had more experience than her at everything, and he always will.

I wonder how Sona got to that level of comfort and trust with someone like Conan. In fact, I wonder how Conan has true friends at all anymore. Occasionally the rigors of the road would get to him and he’d open up without cracking a joke, and he’d explain how lonely he was or how difficult it was or how hard it is for people to understand what he was experiencing. And even though he’s that famous and that arrogant and that privileged and truly talented, I found myself wanting to give him a bit of sympathy. He went on to describe how draining meet-and-greets are, how it just ends up being this factory where you sign autographs and waste time having pointless conversations. Why people want to meet their favorite celebrities for several seconds is beyond me, but it’s what keeps a lot of these people on top and earning money. Those disillusioned fans who think Conan or whoever else will remember them after they’ve stepped out of the huge queue.

All of this ran through my head on Saturday, when I went to a concert at Golden Gate Park to see Mayer Hawthorne (and The Walkmen!) and got the opportunity to meet him afterward. I wasn’t expecting it; a friend of a friend had a backstage pass, and somehow I was given a wristband, no questions asked. I love Mayer Hawthorne’s music, and find him incredibly adorable, but I never thought I’d meet him, nor did I feel particularly compelled to do so. And yet there I was, in line, waiting to meet him. My two friends and I exchanged brief pleasantries with him; my friend mentioned something about how he should have more panties thrown at him, and I said simply, “Go Tigers!” And then it was over, and there was no point to it. I even showed some of my other friends the picture that was taken of the four of us, but it really doesn’t matter. He won’t remember us, I’ll only remember that day because of the concert and the fact that he pointed at me during a song, and I felt like I was the only girl in the crowd (gross but true!). Plenty of others stood in line before us, and plenty more followed. Most all of them took the moment seriously, and I suspect those same folks will treasure that artificial moment for the rest of their lives.

Conan, Mayer, all of these guys. How do that do it? I suppose they just have to ride the wave, knowing how much they’re valued by the masses without getting too overwhelmed by it. And I suppose they try to attract only cool fans, only people they’d want to hang out with and perform for. But that’s easier said than done.

If I ever meet Conan O’Brien, I think I’m just going to ask him if he needs help with anything. He may not remember me, but he’ll certainly remember being happy about the encounter. I hope.

We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy

A book like this definitely needed to be written, if only to serve as inspiration and comfort and education for people like me. I’ve only recently begun to read more about sexism, particularly with respect to the industry I’m interested in, which is comedy. Never before had I considered just how male-dominated this world is, and how many strides women have made to break that cycle.

I hate that the “women aren’t funny” issue came up a few years ago when Bridesmaids came out. It literally did not occur to me that Bridesmaids was “groundbreaking.” I didn’t notice that the main cast was female–really, I did not–and instead just enjoyed it as a movie. And then the internet went insane, commending ladies for finally breaking the glass ceiling and all that. It’s bullshit, though, because, um, what about Sex and the City? Jesus, that show was funny. (Remember this?) And its main cast had only XX chromosomes. I think Bridesmaids is hilarious because Kristin Wiig is so multifaceted and Jon Hamm completely debases himself in it and Chris O’Dowd is so lovable and Melissa McCarthy completely kills it as whatever that character was but, let’s be honest, most people laughed because Maya Rudolph took a shit in the street. It’s still frustrating that we even have to be talking about the movie in terms of its female parts.

Back to the main event. We Killed isn’t a manifesto or anything. In fact, it had its frustrating parts, too. Like Live From New York (which it actually drew upon for some research), it was an oral history, with quotes from ladies and gentlemen of comedy placed in chronological, sometimes completely contradictory order. There were many times when I found myself reading about one breakthrough comedian, only to find in the next chapter that she was considered hack, and that the “next big thing” was the real breakthrough. Lizz Winstead brought up a good point about female “hack” comedians: “It seems that people like to make this stereotype, but how can they keep saying that’s what women comedians do all the time when a bunch of successful ones don’t?” (p. 170). Essentially, comedy by women has behaved in cycles (har har har!); there have been times to be androgynous and asexual (Ellen, Roseanne) and times to be beautiful and appealing (Sarah Silverman, Natasha Leggero) and times to be wifely and doting (Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers). If you, the audience member, hones your comedy taste in one cycle, the other is going to seem foreign and cheap to you. And that’s why, when reading this book, I never really felt like I was able to trust anyone talking about comedy who came up before the 1990’s, because all I truly know about comedy I learned starting at that time. I’m not discounting anything before that; I’m just saying it feels more unfamiliar to me, and consequently, today’s scene feels unfamiliar to them. I just can’t imagine a time when women were though of as lesser, unfunnier performers, and I’m damn proud of it.

I found that women were less hard on each other over the years than men were. Maybe that’s a good thing. But as a result, it was hard to tell who was actually “bad” besides, well, Kathy Griffin. It appeared, from this oral history, that no one ever really liked her. Ouch. But the rest of ’em were just “not my style” or “unconventional” or some other Band-Aided term for “not good, but not willing to admit it.” Or maybe not! It was so hard to tell! Where was the filter? Was any woman really willing to admit that some women actually weren’t funny?

I’m ranting, I know. But I should also say that the book had a lot of high points. For example, the description of Mary Tyler Moore (starting on p. 68), made me want to watch MTM more than I’ve ever wanted to watch a show. I still have never seen an episode, and the reverence with which people speak about it is so intoxicating. Speaking of intoxicating, I was intrigued by the stories of Elayne Boozler (p. 119) and Laura Kightlinger (p. 236), two comics who got famous in comedy but never became stars. I still don’t fully understand why.

We’re in a golden age of comedy now, what with podcasts and YouTube and alt rooms and $5 shows at the UCB and more dudes than ever defending our right to be on that stage for just as long and with just as many dick/vag jokes. A sweet anecdote by the otherwise unbearable Victoria Jackson, about how on The Tonight Show, “Carson would interview me while arranging everything to make me look funny, not himself. He would let me get the laughs and tap his pencil to get an extra laugh” (p. 144), that diplomacy was once rare but is now commonplace, at least among the good ones. The bad ones are still out there, throwing the double standard back at pretty female comics (p. 282) and insisting that explicit sexual content in a routine is just there for shock value, but the good ones jump right on board with Kightlinger, who mused, “I’m an awkward person, who, for some reason needs to forge a connection with strangers by sharing true, intimagte, humiliating events from my own life” (p. 223). If that’s not a comedic truth, I don’t know what is.

Live from New York

I always associated the term “primary source” with a dodgy thumbnail of some stuffy old text from the Renaissance reprinted in my history textbook. Those days are over, though, because I’ve found my new favorite primary source. (Though, to be fair, I never really had an old one, unless you count the Declaration of Independence or something. ‘Merica!) Tom Shales and Jason Andrew Miller’s Live from New York is an incredibly engaging, exciting, fascinating read about Saturday Night Live that I’d venture to say will go into more depth than any memoir written by the cast. And that’s because, in this book, everyone talks–about the drugs, the sex, the sexism, the sleeplessness, the competition, the camaraderie, the adrenaline, the brattiness, the brilliance, the brain-deadeness, and most of all, the resilience of the show.

The book is an exhaustive compilation of quotes from all generations and roles of SNL-ers, starting with the Not Ready for Prime Time Players and finishing in the Fallon/Fey era; the book was published in 2002. We hear from the performers, the writers, the producers (Marci Klein!), the celebrity hosts (Gwyneth Paltrow!), the successful, the burned, the sane (David Spade!), the crazy (Victoria Jackson!), and most of all, we hear from Lorne Michaels, the primariest of all the sources. Not all the stories are told consistently, and not all the facts add up, but that’s sort of the point. The disagreements paint that much clearer a picture of what it was like, and what it is like, in studio 8H in Rockefeller Center.

To me, SNL is mecca, a place where all the comedy gods become immortal (R.I.P. Belushi), and this book certainly caters to those who feel the same way. But it doesn’t glorify the experience, either. I mentioned “burned” before, and I really meant it; several performers, like Garrett Morris, Janeane Garofalo, Harry Shearer, and Damon Wayans, didn’t have the same career-catapulting experience that, say, Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, Chevy Chase, and Bill Murray had, though everyone went on to their own successes anyway. The aforementioned performers never really got off the ground at SNL for a variety of reasons; the takeaway is that the show isn’t built for every personality. It’s a machine, and some are cogs, and that’s the brutally honest way it is. There are plenty of complaints made and bitter tastes still left in the mouths of the burned, but their stories live on in print, preserved in cyanide. It’s sort of sad, but it’s juicy and fascinating at the same time.

The praise from the beloved is, as you might imagine, well represented in the book, too. Gilda Radner and Phil Hartman received universal praise, while other performers like Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, Dana Carvey, Martin Short, and Adam Sandler were sources of jealousy first, humor second, for most of their fellow castmates. And the egos! My god. Rarely did anyone leave with a smaller head than they came in with, and the writers had the most to say about that. Everyone from Jim Downey to Al Franken weighed in on who wanted to be written for, who couldn’t be written for, and who wrote for themselves.

All this drama adds up to a page-turner of a book, if you’ll pardon the cliche phrase. It’s over 500 pages, and hardcover at that (in my case), and I still brought it on the treadmill with me. I’d rather not spoil it too much more by giving away the gossip that fills its pages, and just say that if you’re a comedy nerd, surprise surprise, you’ll eat it up. But I wouldn’t be done talking about it if I didn’t memorialize a few good pull quotes, would I?

p. 130 // Steve Martin: “I found that, in performers and sometimes movies, and especially art, that it takes a while to come to something that’s new. A a lot of times when the resistance finally turns to acceptance, it makes you a greater supporter of it or them.”

p. 168 // Buck Henry: “But you also get the feeling that people are there because, first and foremost, it’s their launching pad or stepping-stone or way station or whatever, not as a destination in itself. They all know that it’s a franchise which leads to making bad movies.”

p. 229 // Tim Kazurinsky: “When did it become about the prostheses? And isn’t the parody in the writing and the wit, rather than the Rick Baker makeup?”

p. 324 // Kevin Nealon: “People need that occasional catchphrase in their life.”

p. 378 // David Spade: “I was just an unknown guy making fun of million-dollar celebrities for no reason, just to take their legs out. A year or two later, it was less interesting, because I had turned into one of them.”

p. 395 // James Downey: “I always thought that if comedy is going to confuse anybody, by rights it should be the stupider people. You shouldn’t be punished for knowing more.”

p. 399 // Fred Wolf: “No one goes to Hollywood for the right reasons. No one goes to Hollywood to meet their future husband or wife and buy a house and have kids. They all go to Hollywood because they’re kind of damaged and there’s something they’re searching for.”

p. 427 // Steve Higgins: “If you like everything in the show, then that’s not a good show.”

p. 483 // Robert Smigel: “A guy writes one play and everybody knows who he is, even if it’s a lousy play, but you can write a hundred great sketches and still be anonymous.”